Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ethics in RPG Design (and how I am dealing with it)

I have a question for you all out there: Is it ethical to create a game that allowed or encouraged negative behavior?

Steve Jackson Games was raided by the Secret Service because of the subject matter of the "GURPS Cyberpunk" sourcebook and the activities and views of the author ( ).  What if, in a small way, Cyberpunk sourcebook was an instruction manual to train future hackers?  Would it be ethical on the part of Steve Jackson Games to bring the book to print?

Information is free and speech should be free too, but they both have limits placed on them.  Shouting "Fire" in a crowded movie theater, slander, inciting violence are all obvious examples of speech which should not be free.  The skills and information you pass along are directly controlled, but what about attitudes your speech creates?

I am not comfortable with my first draft of my game.  I don't like the attitude it creates and I don't think I am on a path where I have the ethical high ground.  So I am making some changes in the gameplay and to make specific groups have more defined boundaries.  So, in the first draft you can play an anti-government anarchist who fights for "freedom"...  not good.  Why?  Well, I believe in democracy, freedom and peaceful means to achieve objectives.  While I can create a game world where such things are in limited supply, I also can't encourage the things I don't accept should a misguided person apply them to the real world.

The new draft will allow more realistic consequences to a person's actions.  Should a person choose, like SPC Bradley Manning ( ) choose to violate information security guidelines and release classified data (even if it is about bad and possibly criminal conduct) they will end up prosecuted for it.  Even after a person like Adrian Lamo (who was once a fugitive hacker ) had served his time, would continue to be under scrutiny and would fear prosecution if he was implicated should it come to light he had knowledge of a crime and not reported it -- something an average citizen would not be charged with.  

So in the current draft of the game a person would have a new attribute like "reputation" which would change as time goes on.  It might start high for a politically connected person who had "dirt" on everyone, or low for a reality TV star or other criminal (just kidding! ..or am I?).  The reputation would go into the equation whenever there is a interaction between people which requires trust.  Typically the "Influence" attributes of Beauty (Bodily Influence) and Charisma (Mental Influence) are used alone, but each would get a bonus or penalty based upon the reputation.  

So a person who might have a Salemanship skill of +3 and a Charisma of 12 giving another +2 for a total of +5 might have committed some hacking in the past and have a reputation of 8 and have a penalty of -2, for a total of +3.  The fear of people he is working with becoming implicated in whatever might be his latest crime might be, will have a chilling effect for him to interact with them.  Just like Loyd Blankinship's reputation caused Steve Jackson Games to be raided by the Secret Service.

The reputation attribute will also come into play when a character is trying to avoid Government scrutiny or "harassment".  Like Adrian Lamo, a person with a low reputation will be an automatic target by the Government should anything bad happen nearby.  They will be the face recognized on the video footage at the bank prior to the robbery, their fingerprints are in the big database, their DNA is on file so they will be the first suspect.  A low reputation subjects a person to become a target and prioritized in the surveillance systems.  In 2032 with pervasive surveillance tracking everyone's every move, the sheer amount of data will overwhelm most automated and manual systems of analysis.  Targets will be prioritized according to the reputation attribute, so a person with a very low reputation stealing a pack of gum might have a higher priority in the surveillance system than an average person robbing a gas station.

A reputation is lowered by the Game Master once a "bad" action is performed.  It has an immediate effect.  Why?  The effect of a bad reputation applies if law enforcement is aware of the action or not.  Consider Adrian Lamo's reaction to Manning's confession of releasing classified documents.  He went to the police because Manning's reputation was lowered by what he had done and Lamo's current low reputation would result in secondary investigation once Manning was discovered to have contact with Lamo.  It is the fear of guilt by association which chills people's reactions regarding reputation.

Reputation can be masked or people can be fooled but once the reputation is discovered there can be negative effects.  Should the latest news be believed regarding Joran Van Der Sloot (where he was fine until Flores Ramirez discovered he had been suspected of the murder of Natalee Holloway) a reputation can be masked or hidden.  But once discovered it makes you an automatic target of suspicion.

Reputation in this manner would not allow the idea of a low reputation as a bonus to a criminal element.  Everyone is subject to surveillance and possible arrest in this game.  If your low reputation character is hanging out in a bar with others of equally low reputation, you might be implicated in anything they get caught for -- past, present or future.  That is also regardless of any actual involvement, drinking with a buddy who goes on to rob a bank might make that meeting look like a planning session.  Most warrants and investigations will occur in software long before a human is sent to arrest a suspect.  The instant an alarm is tripped in the bank a program analyzes all the current occupants in the bank, the person who is active in the robbery as well as the occupants and employees (for accomplices), once immediate suspects are identified a trace is done on each person as to where they all went and who they met with for the last few days, then the people they met are traced.. within a few minutes the surveillance systems can deliver a network of possible accomplices prioritized by reputation.  This is the power of pervasive surveillance in the year 2032..

So, remember kids.. don't do drugs or hang out with others who do..

What other behavior might a game encourage and is it ethical to create a game with such encouragements?  I know the D&D == Suicide craze of the 80s was a total farce, as well as the link between the Columbine shooters and "violent" video games, but a games with actual links to negative behavior?  What lengths should designers go to prevent unethical behavior in the real world which might be connected back to a game?

Thanks to some comment spam bots, I have disabled comments on this post. Comment on any other post if you have something to add (unless you are a bot trying to spread malware). I appreciate it!

Friday, June 4, 2010

With a little help from my friends...

Life has been a bit crazy lately.  I don't always get the free time I'd like, but with that kind of time it would imply that I was unemployed with no friends or family.  So I choose to not be totally alone and therefore get busy from time to time.

So, I have not made the progress on my game that I had wanted to.  It is obvious to me that I will miss the June deadline for the "Cyberpunk Revival Contest".  Such is life, I would stand little chance to win the $30 Amazon gift certificate with such great competition.

But my intentions for this Cyberpunk thing were not to win a prize of such magnitude.  My intentions were to finally put my game system out for someone to play.  So, I will continue.  I think that if I work hard I can have a final product up for people to look at and hopefully earn me some folding money by the fall.

Progress might be slow but it is significant.  I have written a few pages of text now and have lined up a great artist and greater friend -- John aka "Ajaxone" at  He is a talented comic artist and I am quite pleased he is able to prove some art in my efforts!  If you are a wealthy RPG developer and want high quality art, please contact him and shower him with cash to work on your next major project.  His amazing talents are unlimited but his time is not, act now before you are at the end of the queue!
*NOTE: I had to block comments on this entry because of spam. I will put up a new post soon!

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